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At the Helm - Sanjay Sethi
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A hotel management graduate from IHM Pusa, Sanjay Sethi took over as the MD and CEO of Chalet Hotels Ltd in 2015, taking the company public earlier this year. After a few years with smaller hotel companies, he joined the Taj Group of Hotels in 1991 and in 2006, he turned an entrepreneur and founded Berggruen Hotels Ltd. “My career in hospitality happened by chance but after 31 years in the field, I can’t think of anything else that I would have enjoyed more,” shares Sanjay, adding that over the years, work has become his passion and priority.

Having worked with various hotels in different locations, he’s become an expert by any standard. Currently with Chalet Hotels Ltd, which owns upscale luxury hotels and non-hotel assets in Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru, he chats with us about the Indian hospitality industry and more.

How has the use of public space changed during the past 10 years?
The world as a whole is getting very communal by nature. However, with a difference - the young want to be alone in a communal space.  They want to be in ‘buzzing’ spaces, hooked up with Wi-Fi and busy on social media.  Hence, there’s a success in coffee shops and co-working spaces that cater to this. Hotels too are leaning towards creating such social, living room spaces with superior offerings of connectivity. Another change is the outdoors – indoors design theme, driven by the need to harmonise with nature.

Give us an overview of the Indian hospitality industry. In what ways is it ahead of the curve in terms of design and development of old and new brands?
The hotel industry went through a prolonged downward cycle since the 2008 economic crises. The biggest challenge comes from a notable increase in the hotel room supply from 2005 to 2015. Whilst the demand continued to grow to a healthy double-digit, the supply outpaced demand for this period. From 2015, India experienced a favourable arbitrage when demand started outpacing supply. This favourable arbitrage is expected to continue for the foreseeable future because new supply, especially in the higher categories of hotels, doesn’t come up overnight.

On the design front, the millennial and Gen Z’s aspirations will be addressed. Brands are re-calibrating their standards to address the need for social spaces and the changes in food and beverage consumption trends. ‘Cooler’ brands are likely to outperform the traditional luxury brands.  Additionally, hotels are going to get more design-efficient and will be built over lesser square footage to overcome the challenges of capital costs and operational efficiencies. 

How do your learnings from the early days in hotel industry help you today?
Having grown up in the industry from base-level operations, I have a deep connect with hotel guests, employees, and operational challenges. As the CEO of two different hotel companies over the last 13 years, I have been able to leverage this ability of ‘ear to the ground’ approach to create distinct USPs for the companies.

What sets an exceptional hotel apart?
It is the holistic, 360-degree experience – great hospitality, seamless efficiency, warm associates, and of course, hotel designs that work for the guests.

What have you planned for Chalet Hotels Ltd going forward?
We have a four-pronged strategy that spans delivering superior returns through high-quality asset management, partnering with exceptional global brands, efficient greenfield development, and value accretive acquisitions of operating hotel assets.

What are your approaches and challenges in your field of work?
I look at challenges as opportunities to grow. The companies that stand out are the ones that are led by the management team’s ability to identify and act on the opportunities that are out there.

How does your typical day look like?
Right now it is quite balanced. During my hotel operation days, a workday could be as long 20 hours, seven days a week. Now it’s typically 9 hours of formal work, five days a week. However, as an MD and CEO, it never really ends. The last check and revert on emails by me is around 11:30 pm and I am most likely to check for new mails by 7:30 am. A dinner or evening out at a hotel or restaurant always has work-related thoughts playing at the back of my mind!

What do you do in your spare time?
I enjoy family time, eating out, and watching television.

Three mistakes you avoid as the MD and CEO of Chalet Hotels Ltd are?
The DNA of the company is largely to be conservative and that is also our strength. I am conscious of not over-stretching our balance sheet. However, growth is an important strategy for us, so we take balanced views.

A single best quality your colleagues can emulate from you?
I would not ask anyone to emulate me. People must ‘be themselves’. However, the two qualities I value most are ‘application of mind’ and ‘humility’.     – as told to Sumana

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